Japan must build on Takahashi's golden moment

by Jack Gallagher

She arrived in Sydney an athlete and returned to Japan an icon.

Such is the power and prestige that goes along with winning an Olympic gold medal.

Especially in the case of marathoner Naoko Takahashi, who captured the first Olympic athletics gold ever by a Japanese female in Sydney last month. Her arrival home on Monday night generated more media attention than that of a prominent visiting head of state.

Life will never be the same for Takahashi and she knows it and so does everybody else. She deserves all of the benefits she will reap from her historic feat after years of training. But there is a more important issue at stake in the bigger scheme of things.

The question now is, how does Japan build upon this stunning victory and use it as a catalyst for future success in sport on the world stage?

It’s no secret that the overall performance of the nation on the world level has declined dramatically over the past few decades. Japan is not even a factor anymore in gymnastics, a sport it once dominated. The country didn’t even qualify in men’s or women’s volleyball or basketball for the Sydney Games and the performance of the baseball team was pathetic.

You take away Takahashi’s victory in the marathon and Japan’s medals in judo (a sport where it should dominate) and you can see there is not a heck of a lot left to show for a nation of 130 million people which sent a large contingent of athletes to Sydney.

Why we ask? Is it that the youth of today are not as interested in sport as in days past? Or are they occupied with taking entrance exams or playing video games?

Well, I think the answer is none of the above. I believe the problem is one that is prevalent in corporate Japan today, specifically, a lack of organization and vision at the top in an ever-changing world.

Take Japan Olympic Committee president Yushiro Yagi. Here we have a 71-year-old man, who probably hasn’t had a new idea in decades, in charge of the future of Japan’s Olympic movement. Based on what I’ve read and heard of the man, he doesn’t have a clue.

At a press conference in Sydney on Saturday night, he attributed Takahashi’s marathon victory to her humility. Said Yagi, “That humbleness must have been one of the reasons she has made such a brilliant success.”

When I read that comment, I almost lost my lunch. What planet is this guy on I thought? Humility? Give me a break.

Takahashi won that race because she went out and kicked everybody else’s butt. Plain and simple. She had a plan, she executed it, and most importantly, she had the guts to see it through. No moral victories or excuses, just results.

There is a real vacuum in leadership at the top of the JOC, and, unfortunately, this affects the athletes. Training, psychology, motivation, everything. The result being a once-proud nation turning in increasingly poor performances.

I have to wonder where the JOC is coming from, when at the same press conference in Sydney, the Japan team doctor, Takashi Kawahara, speculated that the reason Japan’s females did better than their male counterparts was because, “females are getting more and more developed and competition among males is getting much more severe.”

If that is the case, then why wasn’t there a world record in the athletics competition for the first Olympics since 1948?

Kawahara is only 49, but once again, his statement left me shaking my head. It sounded like the standard built-in excuse that Japanese athletes often have of not being strong enough or big enough to compete against athletes from other nations, which is totally bogus.

If Japan can finish sixth in the final of the men’s 4×100-meter relay at the Olympics, then it can certainly perform better in other disciplines as well. If the Bahamas can win the gold in the women’s 4×100-meter relay, why can’t Japan at least field a competitive team?

The bottom line is that it can, but there has to be some kind of plan. These other countries at the Olympics are training their athletes from very young ages with many of the most advanced techniques, equipment and top-caliber coaches in the world.

Word has come out in the past few days of a government plan to build a national sports training center for elite athletes to increase results at international athletic events. This is precisely what should have been done about 25 years ago, when Japanese athletes were still competitive. Better late than never, but it will take years for the investment to pay off. But it is a start.

Now there is always going to be a faction in the country that says, “Winning isn’t everything, competing should just be enough.” This is fine if we are talking about a school festival or a kids’ soccer game on the weekend, but not for competitions on the world level.

The fact of the matter is that sports are important in the big picture. Victories on the level of Takahashi’s serve to inspire children to try and accomplish things they may have never dreamed possible. They give nations a chance to unify and take pride in the success of one of their own. Most importantly, sports build character and teach teamwork, which are important traits for success after one’s athletic career is over.

This is exemplified by Takahashi’s own comments after her victory.

“I have worked very hard for this, and the Olympics was a wonderful way to express myself. I will leave with many happy and unforgettable memories, and I hope children in Japan are encouraged to take up athletics.”

Was the nation proud after Takahashi’s breathtaking performance?

You’re damn right they were. Just look at the TV ratings for the race. They almost caused the scale for measuring them to blow a fuse.

Japan needs to get somebody young with some fresh ideas in charge at the JOC. Enough of this routine of a guy 68 years old taking over from a guy who is 71.

How about a former athlete who has excelled on the world stage, but is young enough to connect with today’s athletes and coaches and what they need to succeed?

Somebody fearless, somebody intelligent and somebody innovative.

Somebody like Naoko Takahashi.